Sunday, November 8, 2015

Elton John - Blue Moves (1976)

Picture it: It's 1976.  Elton John, the biggest rock star of the seventies, has a formidable track record to look back on: a string of hit singles that also includes a recent duet with Kiki Dee ("Don't Go Breaking My Heart"), seven consecutive chart-topping albums on the Billboard Top Two Hundred in America, the two most recent album releases - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies, both from 1975 -  being the first LPs in history to enter that chart at number one.   He's just completed yet another triumphant concert tour of the States.  But after six incredible years, he needs a break.  Just before he takes some much-deserved time off, though, he is about to release one more album - a double album, just like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - on his own Rocket label, a label that up until now has only been meant for other artists, including Kiki Dee and the great Neil Sedaka, to celebrate his independence from his old record company.  What sort of album do you expect?
I'm sorry to say this, but you likely would not have expected the album Elton actually put out.
Blue Moves is a joyless, tedious listen with few moments of genuine inspiration and too many excursions into excess.  Most of the songs were written at a time when Elton was fatigued and lyricist Bernie Taupin was going through a divorce.  And so you had a cheerless country tale of revenge like "Shoulder Holster," forced pop-rockers like "One Horse Town" and "Boogie Pilgrim," and morose, weepy ballads that vividly illustrated the songwriting duo's exhaustion, such as "Tonight," a song that grows tiresome before it really even gets going.  (Titles such as "Cage The Songbird" and "Someone's Final Song" indicate that there are no pop charms reminding us of Elton's earlier tunes to be found in those particular songs.)  The first time I ever listened to Blue Moves was on an eight-track cartridge I'd bought for fifty cents at a flea market; it was barely worth the four bits.
Some critics, like Rolling Stone's Ariel Swartley, suggested that Elton was attempting to make some grand statement with his music and trying to find greater depth in Taupin's lyrics than there apparently was.  That may be so; at 29 years of age and worn down by the demands of his career, Elton was probably thinking of his legacy (he apparently didn't realize he'd already secured it) and may have been eager to prove himself as a Significant Artist, and Bernie was likely trying to make a similar gesture with his song lyrics as his personal life was coming apart.  But Blue Moves instead sounds like the work of two kindred spirits who, ironically, were deeply mired in self-loathing and self-pity to the point of subconsciously trying to emulate Bob Dylan - who famously declared his fondness for Elton and Bernie's work back in 1970 - by making their own Self-Portrait.  Indeed, the similarities are dismaying.  Dylan released Self-Portrait, considered the worst double album ever, a mere four years after producing Blonde on Blonde, which is considered rock's greatest double album; now, in 1976, a mere three years after releasing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the best double album from any seventies artist, Elton was giving us the most disappointing double album from such an artist.  How disappointing?  Four of Blue Moves's tracks were left off the album to fit it on a single compact disc when it was originally released on CD.  If there were any complaints about that, I must have missed them.  
To be fair, not all of the cuts on Blue Moves are unsuccessful.  "Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word," with subtle strings, and some delicate percussion from Ray Cooper, backing Elton's piano, is one of the most heartfelt ballads Elton and Bernie have ever written.  Also, "Crazy Water" has a quirky charm to it, and I enjoy the inherent humor of the brief instrumental "Theme From a Non-Existent TV Series."   But by 1976, Gus Dudgeon's production had become predictable, and the best efforts of Elton's backing band couldn't breathe much life into this material.  Blue Moves's closing cut, "Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!)," sums up the problem with the whole LP - well-worn hooks with no imagination, a sense of affected excitement, and a lame attempt at a contemporary sound as it devolves from a energetic rock number into Eurodisco redolent of the Silver Convention.
As it turned out, Blue Moves would be the last time Elton and Bernie would work together on a full-time basis for more than six years, and Elton would work with different musicians and producers for awhile after returning to the recording studio.  One of the most joyous phenomena in rock and roll had come to end with Blue Moves.   When, on "Idol," the LP's sixteenth track and a presumed Elvis parable, Elton sang, "I have to say that I liked the way his music sounded before," he was singing about himself, even if he didn't know it.  I'm not too sure Bernie knew it, either.  

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